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Incandescent Incarnations

New York
Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
10/13/2008 -  
Johann Sebastian Bach: Violin Concerto in A Minor, BWV 1041 – Double Violin Concerto in D Minor, BWV 1043 – Violin Concerto in E Major, BWV 1042
Giuseppe Tartini: Devil’s Trill Sonata (arranged by Riccardo Zandonai)

Anne-Sophie Mutter, Vilde Frang (Violin)
Camerata Salzburg

(© Anja Frers/DG)

Anne-Sophie Mutter never ceases to amaze. When she started three decades ago, she was a prodigy who mastered the Romantic repertory and made it her own. Later, she played Bach with the ardor of a Liszt and the technique of a Paganini. When approaching the 20th Century, she played the Berg Violin Concerto with the most vivid colors, and then premiered Gubaidulina, Penderecki and others of that ilk as if born to the contemporary genre. A few months ago, she challenged Carnegie Hall audiences with an all-Brahms program. And last night, Ms. Mutter challenged another audience with an almost-all Bach program that was most unusual.

Not the program itself, which included the three “authentic” violin concertos, but Ms. Mutter’s enigmatic performance. She still dazzles in her playing and her stately beautiful looks. She still has the perfect blend of brilliant virtuosity and rich, rich color. But in two of the Bach concertos, Ms. Mutter played the four fast movements as if she was an atom whizzing through Europe’s centrifuge, daring anybody else to meet her at her own speed. These movements, of the A Minor and Double Violin Concerto were almost off-putting, for the lilting phrases we love to hum were hurried through, the delicious little turns were (to paraphrase President Clinton) swallowed without inhaling. And while the Salzburg Camerata—the 56-year-old all-European Baroque-sized orchestra—were rumbling along at her speed, we could barely gasp for breath. One member of the orchestra told me that he had never played it so quickly, but it was no error. “Ms. Mutter came in at the first rehearsal, set the tempo, and off we went. No questions asked.” And while the orchestra is an excellent one, they were sometimes left fumbling behind the soloist.

Ms. Mutter, though, doesn’t do anything without a reason. Something of a scholar, she recently revealed “exciting findings of period performance practice”. (Although she also confessed that "authenticity is a Utopian notion.”) While she reportedly used the reproduction of a Baroque bow, these outer movements went far too quickly for one to notice any sonic change. This playing was less expressing phrasing than hard electronic lines, each measure seemingly given one beat. (Ms. Mutter was the de facto conductor, setting the pace and letting the group then play on their own.)

So we were left to the slow movements to find that glowing early Anne-Sophie Mutter. The A Minor Concerto Andante was a peaceful oasis, played without undue vibrato but with that long flowing line which Ms. Mutter can spin out. For the Double Violin Concerto, the violinist teamed up with a winner of her own Anne-Sophie Mutter Foundation, a young Norwegian violinist named Vilde Frang, who is already making recordings. The two couldn’t have been more different.

I have always believed that measures of the Largo ma non tanto are amongst the most beautiful ever written, but this depends on the soloists blending in with each other, overlapping, organically growing with each measure. This, though, was a playing of contrasts. Ms. Vilde’s tone was a trifle thinner, but the lines were woven with almost delicate sensitivity. Ms. Mutter’s tone was richer, fuller. They were two very different artists, but at the end of this movement, they came together in one beautiful unforgettable sound.

The second half of the concert was far more satisfying. Ms. Mutter might have taken the Allegro of the E Major Concerto a trifle too quickly, but it was hardly disconcerting, The Adagio was taken, yes, very, very slowly. But Ms. Mutter had a chance to show exactly how thrillingly larger her dynamic range and her musical sensibilities.

The final work I felt was the best of the lot. Tartini’s famed “Devil’s Trill” Sonata encompassed three avatars here. First the sonata originally for violin and basso continuo. But that was changed by one Riccardo Zandonai, in 1940, to violin with string orchestra. And to that arrangement, Fritz Kreisler added a last-movement cadenza which made Tartini’s “unplayable” music seem like “Three Blind Mice”. Ms. Mutter played it not only with extreme beauty—without the burden of scholarly “authenticity”—but made that cadenza seem like quicksilver under her grasp. The “Trill” was a thrill.

We had one more surprise in this most surprising concert. For the encore, Ms. Mutter played the famous Air from Bach’s Third Orchestral Suite. This time, the arrangement was more thrilling than the rest of the concert put together. The accompaniment consisted of concertmaster Yukiko Tezuka, solo cellist Giovanni Gnocchi, and pizzicatos from double-bassist Josef Radauer. Above their solo playing, Ms. Mutter’s violin soared on wings of an aria, without affectation, without urgency, but with the endless angelic beauty of the moment.

Anne-Sophie Mutter’s website

Harry Rolnick



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